LSU fullback Bry’Kiethon Mouton barreled into the end zone from the two-yard line late in the second quarter Saturday night, giving the Tigers a 19-10 lead against Jacksonville State.
The converted high school tight end hadn’t recorded a carry in a collegiate game prior to that, having caught two passes for 21 yards in his freshman season. Even D.J. Chark, a wide receiver, had been handed the ball before in a game, sprinting 79 yards for a touchdown off an end-around in the 2015 Texas Bowl.
But, unlike Mouton, Chark hadn’t recorded a catch in his two previous years at LSU. He changed that in the second quarter, hauling in a pass for 12 yards and a first down.
They weren’t alone on this night of firsts for the 2016 Tigers.
Tight end DeSean Smith, a senior, put LSU on the scoreboard with his first career touchdown, a 46-yard reception with 12:21 left in the second quarter. Derrius Guice, making his first career start in place of the injured Leonard Fournette, toted the ball 19 for 155 yards and a touchdown.
“[Fournette] told me, ‘Don’t be nervous, do what we always do and just seize the moment because it’s here now, and you can’t turn back,'” Guice said of Fournette’s advice to him. “I just had to step up and take over.”
Eight true freshman, including three rookie wide receivers, made their collegiate debuts in 34-13 LSU win, the first of an already rocky 2016 season.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Justin McMillan, sophomore running back Nick Brossette — who had five carries for 40 yards — and redshirt freshman tailback Lanard Fournette also saw time in the fourth quarter.
“I was telling all the running backs all week, ‘Fournette's out. I want y’all to put up big numbers and do big things so the world can know that we got backs that’s coming up behind Fournette,'” Mouton said. “I had the feeling we were going to do big things.”
And then there was that quarterback change in the second quarter.
Making his LSU debut, Danny Etling replaced an erratic Brandon Harris, sparking a 27-point second quarter. Etling, a junior Purdue transfer, completed 6 of first 8 passes for 100 yards, including the touchdown to Smith.
Guice said he doesn’t really know why the offense was more effective with Etling in the game.
“I can’t really tell, man,” Guice said. “I don’t really know what changed, but all I got to say is I’m glad it did. And I’m glad we were able to get stuff going whenever we did because we were looking kind of sloppy and slouchy in the beginning. It was just a good thing to see us picking it up and executing and getting it together.”
Mouton’s preseason expectations came to fruition Saturday night. Though he became a starter when fullback J.D. Moore tore his left ACL last season, he was used almost inclusively as Fournette's run blocker.
In an August interview, Mouton said additional offensive players were being used in different ways, as part of tweaks to offense in the offseason. At the very least, the Acadiana High School product expected to receive carries in goal-line or short-yardage situations.
“It’s coming along,” Mouton said of the transition to fullback. “It took a lot of patience. [When] I came in as a freshman, I didn’t really know how to play this position. I hadn’t played this position before, so I had to take a lot of time and a lot learning and being coachable.”
Just as he expected, Mouton received all four of his carries Saturday with only a few yards to go of the first-down marker or the goal line. Mouton’s six-yard gain gave LSU a first down on 3rd-and-2 in the third quarter. Later in the quarter, Mouton burst for a seven-yard gain to set up Etling’s two-yard rushing touchdown three players later.
He’s more than willing to be the short-yardage back, he said.
“My mindset is, if they call me on third-and-2, third-and-3, I got to get the first down,” Mouton said. “The team's depending on me to get the first down to keep the drive going.”
With 35 career appearances, Smith has been a rare but effective commodity at times over his three previous season.
In an offense that has seldom used its tight ends in the passing game in recent years, the Lake Charles native’s biggest impact came in LSU’s 2014 Music City Bowl loss to Notre Dame. He caught four passes from former LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings for 66 yards, including two 21-yard receptions.
Despite playing in all 13 games in his freshman and sophomore seasons, he battled a knee injury late last season, playing nine games with four catches.
“You’d be surprised how many times we tried to get [Smith] the ball,” Miles said “He is a talented receiver. We think we have a number of really talented receivers.”
Smith’s knee injury lingered in the offseason, and he wasn’t listed on the Week 1 or Week 2 depth charts. However, Smith had a 19-yard catch in the final drive of last week’s game.
Then came Saturday night, when he broke open in the secondary and easily snatched Etling’s touch pass for a touchdown.
For a team needing a lift after a brutal loss, new names – and a few old ones – joined the fold.
“Whether Leonard is there or not, when I’m called upon, I got to do what I got to do," Guice said. "Along with everybody else, whenever their name is called, they got to execute and do what they’re called to do.”